TOPEKA — Two influential K-12 education organizations in Kansas perked up when the Senate’s education committee agreed to dive into a bill mandating in-person instruction resume by March 26 and forbidding local school boards from ever again shifting to online-only instruction for students in kindergarten through high school.

The bill could usurp authority of the 286 elected school boards to decide how best to teach more than 450,000 children statewide during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also would appear to run contrary to action taken in the Kansas Legislature’s special session in 2020 to transfer from Gov. Laura Kelly to municipal officials key decisions about responding to the coronavirus. On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee is scheduled to discuss the K-12 mandate in Senate Bill 235.

“The Legislature decided that it wanted to address the pandemic as a matter of local control and local variation and let decisions be made by local county officials. We still tend to think that’s generally the right idea,” said Mark Tallman, who represents the Kansas Association of School Boards. “Everyone agrees with the urgency of trying to restore things as soon as we can. But I don’t think that means that you abandon every other health and safety concern.”

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, introduced a bill requiring K-12 public school districts to return to in-person, in-school instruction by March 26 and to not again move exclusively to online instruction. He said some Kansas students haven’t been in classrooms since March 2020. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Tallman said on the Kansas Reflector podcast that adoption of a one-size-fits-all law on school attendance could prove difficult because the impact of COVID-19 has varied from city to city. Most kids have been back to school for in-person learning in the past year, he said, but there was no consistency.

There is growing evidence children will be better served academically by returning to school buildings in the presence of teachers and peers, Tallman said. He also said some districts hadn’t been able to address public health recommendations necessary to transition fully from a mixture of online and in-person instruction.

Mark Desetti, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association at the Statehouse, said parents want their children to return full-time to school because the status quo was disruptive to adults trying to hold down jobs and striving to fill roles as pandemic educators. Demands on parents or guardians to fill in gaps, especially families without computers or adequate internet access, are unprecedented, he said.

“I’m going to tell you, nobody wants them back more than their teachers,” Desetti said. “That’s what they were trained to do — in-person learning with their students. They love their students and want to be with them. Our position has always been we want we want to return to school when it is safe to return to school. When we can assure our teachers, our support staff, the parents that coming back in those buildings is not going to spread this virus, even if that spread is just to the adults.”

The Democratic governor has made returning to in-school instruction a high priority, but Kelly said teacher vaccinations were fundamental to reasonable resumption of classes inside district buildings. The Kansas State Board of Education granted districts greater latitude to host middle school and high school students in classrooms when local COVID-19 cases surged.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, introduced the Back to School Act because some students hadn’t had the opportunity for in-person instruction since March 2020. These students cannot languish in virtual learning, he said.

“Students across the state and nation are suffering from significant learning loss and mental health challenges due to the lack of full-time, in-person learning,” Masterson said. “Governor Kelly was the first governor in the country to shut down schools last spring. Kansas parents have been patient, but they have seen their children struggling and they have had enough. It’s time to do what is desperately needed and get Kansas kids back to school.”

Tallman said the Kansas Association of School Boards worked on behalf of the elected school boards across the state, while Desetti said KNEA was the state’s largest professional association of educators with about 25,000 members.

No legislative session in Kansas would be complete without debate on financing of K-12 education, and the 2021 edition won’t disappoint. The Kansas Senate approved a tax reform bill that could reduce state revenue by an estimated $1 billion over three years. It’s consequential to public school districts because education consumes a huge share of the state budget.

“If you are reducing revenues coming in, it’s either going to have an impact on K-12 funding or it’s going to have an even greater impact on everything else in the budget — social services, higher education, and those other areas,” Tallman said.

Desetti said the Kansas Supreme Court has a history of finding against the state for budget decisions in violation of school finance provisions of the Kansas Constitution. In 2012 and 2013, Gov. Sam Brownback signed bills aggressively reducing state income tax revenue in a bid to build a stronger economy by eventually driving income tax revenue to zero.

“To use a sports analogy,” Desetti said, “we have deja vu all over again. Right? Oh, we’re going to cut taxes. It’s going to trickle down. It’s going to do great things. And, what it did was collapse the state almost to the point of of insolvency. It forced the Legislature to cut schools to freeze funding, to basically cut the highway plan, to knock people off services. It was a disaster.”

He said retrenching on state aid to public school districts was a prescription for more lawsuits. The state Supreme Court retained jurisdiction of the last school funding lawsuit, which means the justices could quickly step in if financial turmoil raised constitutional questions.

“This tax bill is just a major step backwards in terms of taking care of the services that are vital to meet the needs not just of education, but all Kansans in all walks of life,” Desetti said.

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